In summer 1999, I traveled to New York City for the first time in my life. The naked cowboy had yet to debut his tight-fitting briefs, the twin towers were still shiny and intact, “Total Request Live” was the most popular show on MTV, and the network played 50 seconds of a music video every once in a while.
At the time, I’d just turned eleven and was about to enter middle school. I’d never watched a scary movie before, but because we were on a family vacation, my parents decided to take me to see “The Sixth Sense,” which had received positive reviews. I knew the story was about a young tormented boy who had zero friends at school, so I tried telling my mom and dad that the film would guide me through the awful days of Scotts Valley Middle School.
With that, we saw “The Sixth Sense” in a giant NYC theater. I was nervous throughout the flick, only briefly comforted by Haley Joel Osment’s onscreen presence (I had a major crush on him back then, as I’ve mentioned before). Back then, I focused more on the scary aspects of “The Sixth Sense.” If you’ve seen the thriller, you know which scenes are the hardest to forget. That day, I couldn’t stop thinking of the furious female ghost who has slit wrists, a shiner, and sustained injuries from her abusive husband. I also never got the image of hanging corpses out of my head. As a pre-teen, “The Sixth Sense” is about the unfortunate fate of a little boy who is constantly bothered by unsatisfied spirits, but upon watching the movie as an adult, I was able to examine more about the plot, characters, and story. It’s easier to see why the ghosts came to Cole at a certain point in his life.
As many of you know, “The Sixth Sense” follows defeated Philadelphia child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) a year after he earns an award for his outstanding work with kids. Upon receiving the accolade, Malcolm is confronted by a disturbed former patient who faults the doctor for failing to solve his problems. The ex-patient shoots Malcolm in the stomach and then his own head. A year later, Malcolm is down on himself and ignored by his wife.
To redeem himself, Malcolm tries to get through to Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled, fearful little boy from a single parent household.
Cole’s father recently left him and his mother (Toni Collette) juggles multiple jobs to make ends meet. When Malcolm first meets Cole, he’s under the impression that the young boy began having problems when his dad walked out on the family. Perhaps this is the case, but judging by a particular scene in the film, it’s clear that ghosts retreated to Cole long before his dad’s departure.
A social outcast at school and self-described “freak”, Cole has no friends but pretends to get along with the popular Tommy Tammisimo to keep Collette’s character from worrying about her son. Malcolm assumes Cole is a good kid, but Cole quickly reveals that he sometimes causes a stir at school.
On one occasion, he drew a man stabbing another guy in the neck with a screwdriver. Such a drawing warranted a parent-teacher conference, which resulted in Cole’s mother bursting out into tears. Cole, who says the image wasn’t inspired by a television show or film, tells Malcolm that he’s quit making disturbing pictures. He now draws people smiling, dogs running, and rainbows.
“They don’t have meetings about rainbows,” Cole says.
Cole soon opens up to Malcolm and confesses to seeing dead people. At first Malcolm believes Cole suffers from some sort of personality disorder, possibly as a result of his dad going away, but he eventually realizes that Cole’s abilities are real.
When I re-watched this movie the other day, I picked up on more about Cole’s character and back story. When I first saw “The Sixth Sense” as an 11-year-old, I didn’t understand the significance to Cole’s absent father. Having seen it again as a grown-up, I understand that some viewers would think the father factor could have contributed to the crumbling of Cole’s mind. Perhaps his dad’s exit enabled him to see the ghosts around him. As I wrote earlier, the audience gets to see Cole’s baby pictures in one specific scene and an orb appears in all the photos, proving that spirits were drawn to this special boy from the beginning of his young life.
As I re-watched the movie, I was floored by Osment’s acting. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old during the filming of “The Sixth Sense”, but he carries himself with wisdom well beyond his years, the fear and vulnerability of a helpless boy, and the sadness of a young boy abandoned by his father. Osment was nominated for an Oscar for his role, and though he didn’t win, his performance is incredible.
As to be expected from a boy who sees ghosts, Cole is an old soul through no choice of his own. He picks up German from a spirit, giggles with a deceased burn victim, knows the sordid history of hangings at his school, and helps a dead little girl explain to her dad that she was murdered by a family member. Osment gives off the impression that he willingly takes on the problems of the dead because he wants to help those in need.
Osment plays the role well, and while his character is definitely forced to grow up and mature too soon, he still exhibits a great deal of naivete. After all, he’s still a little boy. Though he sees spirits and maliciously humiliates his teacher by publicly exposing his stutter, Cole possesses the mentality of a child.
When Malcolm uses the word “bullshit” during a pep talk, Cole keeps quiet a moment before saying, “You said the ‘s’ word.” Speaking of a tollbooth employee, Cole says, “Do you ever wonder what happens when she has to pee? Do you think she just holds it?” At the end of the day, he’s still in the single digits, and he hasn’t totally had his childhood robbed. The movie does a nice job of showing that he remains a youngun’ who strives for normalcy throughout the whole traumatic ordeal.
This is even more apparent when Cole and his mother have a “what if” conversation about what the perfect day would entail for each of them.
“[Today], I won the Pennsylvania lottery…I quit my jobs, and had a big picnic in the park with lots of chocolate mousse pie,” Cole’s mom says. “What did you do [today]?”
“I was picked first for Kickball….Won the game. Everyone lifted me on their shoulders and carried me around cheering,” Cole says, beaming.
For the mother, the lottery would be a life changer, but Cole simply wants to be well-liked by his peers. We see his innocence and youthful desire for acceptance, so while he endures much more than any kid could imagine, Cole is a young boy in need of friendship and recognition.